Winnipeg Is: Slow to wake up

Strong retail could change our downtown, slowly but surely

Downtown Winnipeg is an emerging district. The thing is, emerging takes time. Think about yourself emerging from bed on a dark, Winnipeg winter morning. It’s a process.

And it’s well under way. Between 2005 and 2013, we’ve seen over $2 billion in investment in our downtown, according to the Downtown Winnipeg Retail Assessment, Enhancement & Implementation Strategy, 2014.

Glasshouse Skylofts, SkyCity Centre and Centrepoint (the new Alt Hotel/office space/restaurant/parking complex opening this spring) are a combined $460-million investment, and have set the stage for upping the number of downtown residents, workers and visitors we host.  

The $180-million RBC Convention Centre upgrade, set to open in 2016, is already booked for conventions that will bring more delegates to Winnipeg from more cities far and wide. That’s on top of the current 16,000 residents, 69,000 employees and 24,200 students occupying downtown spaces on a daily basis, and 900,000 visitors annually.

With the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, continued development and programming at The Forks, bigger-ticket attractions like Dali and Olympus at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, downtown and Exchange District tours and MTS Centre programming year-round, among all of the excellent arts programming we regularly see between the ballet, theatre companies and live music venues, there is plenty for downtown residents, visitors and tourists to do.

The downtown restaurant scene is growing steadily, with places like The Pint, Carbone and Nick’s on Broadway opening recently, and favourite spots like deer + almond, Peasant Cookery and Stella’s at the Plug In always bustling. We’ve got a ways to go before we hit our food and beverage plateau (brewpub, pretty please?), but there’s no shortage of places for people to eat.

But where will they shop? If you compare Winnipeg to any other city similar in size, you see a much larger focus on downtown retail. The Shoppers Drug Mart does not close at 6 p.m., so you’re not hooped if you need a snack or some Imodium or a plunger one night. There are retail options beyond Giant Tiger, Dollarama and Dollar Tree (formerly The Bargain! Shop).

So here’s where I wish we could flip the switch and go from emerging to emerged. Throw off the blanket, turn on the lights and leap out of bed.

We recently welcomed the likes of Anthropologie, H&M, Urban Outfitters and Banana Republic into the Winnipeg retail mix. These are the types of stores that create beautiful storefronts and window displays (which we are in desperate need of) in other downtowns. We buried them in Polo Park.

University of Winnipeg students are these retailers’ target market. Instead of locating a five-minute walk away, they’re a 15-minute bus ride.

These types of retailers could have the power to change the downtown landscape by retaining foot traffic and improving vibrancy and safety after work hours.

And yes, we are resistant to change – the thought of choosing to shop at Portage Place is unfathomable to many – and we are downright outraged at the thought of paying for parking downtown. But we are also the ones who take annual seven-and-a-half hour pilgrimages to Minneapolis, stay a night or several in a hotel and pay duty on our purchases from these stores, so really what’s a few bucks for parking?

We’re emerging in many ways – some parts of our downtown are emerging faster than others – quality retail, it seems, is emerging from deep within.

 Larissa Peck has studied, currently works, loves, plays, shops and (almost, according to the technical boundary) lives downtown. She is not good at emerging from her bed, and she’s the copy and style editor for this thing you’re reading.

Part of the series: The Urban Issue 2015

Published in Volume 69, Number 26 of The Uniter (March 25, 2015)

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